We found the car first, a black Volkswagen sedan covered in dusty handprints. It was as though some prehistoric tribe had taken their art out of the caves and blessed this strange thing, this massive darkling beetle, with their totemic symbols.
A broken rake and beat up frying pan lay discarded nearby - retrieved from the old line cabin up the road. We knew at a glance his efforts had been doomed from the start. Low clearance and street tires only suffice if you stay on the road. When the sand sucks you in, it’s more use praying than digging.
We found him trudging sunblasted and dazed across the flats, with that look one gets when the wild has you in its talons and nothing you can do can change it. His jeans were coated in sand. The tattoos on his neck and over one eye played a cool counterpoint to his angry skin, flushed from exposure. His baseball cap was clapped on backward in defiance of good sense.
Dennis lent him his phone at a spot where there was reception. An invisible node of connectivity among Joshua Trees.
Now we stood awkwardly, staring at his car. Dust highlighted the desert pinstriping he’d picked up from bony creosote fingers.
“I’m sorry about my behavior yesterday,” he said, looking at the ground.
I looked at him, confused. “For what?”
We’d dug out enough sand for Dennis to slip his slim frame underneath and begin wrapping the tow strap around the front axle.
“I was acting pretty weird. Thought I freaked you guys out.”
Then it dawned on me. This car had been the one parked up at the cabin yesterday.
“I thought you had gone to the spring. Didn’t see anything. No worries, man.”
Relief flooded his face.
“Nah. I was up on the mountain - watched you guys drive in and hike out.”
“On the mountain?” It was rugged country, and he was in a t-shirt and jeans.
“Yeah,”he said, embarrassed again, looking off into the distance. “Safer up there. They couldn’t get to me.”
He cleared his throat. “Was freaking out. Felt like I was being chased, got all the way up to the cabin, ditched the car and hid. Then I saw you guys pull up and thought you were the people chasing me, and…” he caught himself. “Didn’t feel safe coming back down so I stayed there all night.”
I stared at him. “In a t-shirt?” It was the first week of December and we were over 6000 feet. He was lucky he hadn’t gone hypothermic.
He was quiet for a moment. “I was clean for like 8 months, ya know? Went down to Los Angeles to work on a project and was turning things around, feeling really good. Came back up here to home and the wife had a bag of meth.”
“Shit. You live in Lone Pine?”
“Olancha…” His demeanor changed again - he seemed shrunken somehow. The transformation was jarring. Despite his gentle affect, he was a stocky guy that - if I were at a bar somewhere - I would not be eager to tangle with. And yet he shoved his hands into his pockets looking somehow like a little kid expecting a lecture. “He’s gonna kill me.”
“Stepdad.” He gestured at the Volkswagen and its scratches. “It’s his car.”
“Growing up, he didn’t do a whole lot of talking.”
I searched for something to say. Came up short, so I tried to distract. “Well, you survived and made it back out. I just can’t figure out how you ended up like this,” I said, gesturing to the car. “Straight shot out from here.”
He rubbed the back of his neck. “Made it out. Got paranoid again - thought they were coming back and panicked. Tried to turn around…” He stopped, glanced at me. “I’m sorry - you don’t need to hear my shit.”
“No, it’s all good. Everyone goes through bad things. I’m not judging you - kicking a dependence is tough.”
“I appreciate that. Hey,” he hesitated, as Dennis pulled himself from under the car. “You like the Grateful Dead?”
“I knew you were a good person,” he said, coming over and fist bumping me.
“Let’s get you out of here. We ready, Dennis?”
Pulling my truck forward, we wrapped the tow strap around the back axle and with two pulls the Volkswagen was back on the road. Galen viewed it with a mixture of relief and trepidation. His immediate crisis was over; the existential one was waiting 25 miles west.
“I … don’t have any money or anything. I’m sorry.”
“Oh please,” I scoffed. “You think we cruise old mining roads looking for stranded people to fleece? Happy to do it. I’ve been stuck before and someone helped me.”
“Well, glad you were here this time.”
We climbed into our respective vehicles. I was at the head of the caravan. While Galen was fiddling with something in his car, I headed out. Dennis was bringing up the rear and had to wait.
Keeping an eye on the mirror, I drove quickly to keep them out of my dust plume. But as I was approaching the highway I could only see Dennis’ Honda, and no Volkswagen, which should have been between Dennis and I. There was no way Dennis could have passed Galen and I became concerned that something had happened.
Galen seemed like a nice enough guy but he was still under the influence. And over the last 48 hours he’d had trouble discerning reality from fantasy, that much was clear from talking to him.
The idealistic part of me trusted nothing was wrong. A more cynical part of me said ‘better safe than sorry’. So just before the highway, I pulled over, unlocked my rifle, loaded it and laid it on the back seat. Back outside, I flipped the tailgate down and was casually eating trail mix when both vehicles finally came into view. Dennis’s vehicle had a higher profile and the VW must have been hidden by dips in the road. All clear.
Dennis was headed home to Nevada and waved as he passed. Galen slowed and parked. He got out, walked over and fist bumped me a second time.
“Can’t thank you enough for getting me out. Thanks again.”
“No problem at all, brother. You okay?”
“Yeah, I mean…” he gazed at the distant Sierra. “Sure.”
“Listen, I’ve had friends who struggled with substance stuff,” I said. “I know how hard it can be. But you got clean once. You can do it again.”
“I know.” A sad smile flickered across his face. Now that he was unstuck, he was staring down the barrel of the wrath that awaited him at home. “I appreciate you but I gotta go.”
He drove home and I drove to another canyon to continue my trip.
That would have been the end of it. Just another encounter in the Mojave, but some time later, I stumbled across an obituary online. I froze and stared as I recognized him. He had been 11 years younger than me, loved “studying the cosmos”, brought doughnuts to homeless people in the mornings, dreamed of working on a fishing boat in Alaska one day and was, of course, a devoted fan of the Grateful Dead. In the way of obituaries it did not mention the conditions he’d been raised in or the struggle that ultimately ended his life, which is as it should be, but it certainly didn’t paint the full picture of his circumstance.
He died less than a month after we freed his car. The only thing I could think of was the sadness in him; almost as though he could see what was coming. That inexorable shadow lurking at the edges of perception. It still haunts me. At times I catch myself wondering if there was something else I could have done, but I know … I know. I did what I could. You can pull someone out of the sand, but not out of the trap their life has become. I hope he’s found peace, because in the moments I knew him, Galen was a good man. And that’s the way he should be remembered.
(As published in Galaxy Brain, Edition 16)